Svetlana Fenichel is a student at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Cusco, Peru.
If you ever become so lucky as to visit the “Belly Button of the World,” that’s what the Quechua name of Cusco translates into, you are guaranteed to be constantly surrounded by the magical beauty of this ancient place. Although the wonders await you on every corner of its old streets, make sure to pay homage and fully enjoy the most important pieces of Cusco that make it the unforgettable and unique place.
Probably one of the most important components of any city is its inhabitants. But that applies most definitely to the citizens of Cusco, the longest continuously inhabited city in South America. The descendants of the greatest Incas, they carry on the centuries long traditions set by their most sophisticated ancestors. Watch out for women dressed in the traditional dresses, carrying children or vending products on their backs in colorful llicllas, just the way their grandmothers used to do. Cusceneans are very nice and helpful, very welcoming and warm. Although the streets are replete with people who are trying to make a sol or two of any imaginable thing, you rarely are going to meet a beggar. Almost all of them have something to offer in return to your money.
Just like the rest of the Incan culture, Quechua, the language of the most sophisticated Andean tribe, has lived through the tough times. It is a very melodic but difficult language that has little resemblance with the Spanish spoken in Cusco. Although it still takes the second to Spanish or English position, and is mainly spoken in the mountains, it is experiencing a true revival. More and more often you can hear it being spoken on the streets. If you want to get a taste of Quechua, just look for the streets signs around Cusco. Although it makes the navigation through the chaotically spread streets even trickier, the places are now being given their old Inca names. Thus, for instance the Quechua name of Plaza de Armas, or Plaza Huacaypata is now written on its walls. As pointed by one of the local guides, such phenomenon can be attributed to the tourists flocking to the region. In conjunction with the leading archaeologists anthropologists, historians and linguists, interested in the Inca civilization they gave the once vanishing language another life. Today, courses in Quechua are widely open to public, while locals try to ensure that the Quechua remains a living language and takes an equal to Spanish place in their society.
3. The Andes.
The Incas had to travel a long way to discover place worthy of becoming the center of their vast Empire, and their choice is indisputable At any point in the city you will be surrounded by the beautiful Andes. Travel somewhat twenty minutes outside of Cusco, and the most scenic views will open before you. You will be amazed by the natural beauty of the mountains, and the fresh air will energize you. And here it will occur to you that you are indeed in the center of the world. Since the peoples of the region have been always dependent on the agriculture, they attributed significant power to the mountains around them, which provided them with their food and water. Some of the most important picks of the Andes were called “the apus” and were considered as living mountains. The Apus was associated with deity, which provided the inhabitants of the region with water, and various rituals and sacrifices were devoted to them.
You can’t assert that you know Cusco, if you never visit one its multiple mercados, or markets. One of those could be found in any part of the city. However, the most important ones happen on Sundays in various sections of Cusco. Here, you can see the most impressive selection of fruits and vegetables, freshly picked in the Andes and brought down by the villagers. If you are interested to learn about the twenty-six hundred kinds of potatoes or hundreds of types of corn, save you time and money on going to a museum. If not all of them, then an impressive number of different types of this most vital for Peruvians food products will be on display in any Mercado. On the way out, don’t forget to buy a small bouquet of freshly cut flowers. They are very cheap, but popular among Cusceneans who love decorating their houses with those vestiges of life and beauty.
5. The Food.
Peru in general, and Cusco in particular, are being rediscovered by the world as a gastronomic paradise. Although it obviously caters better to the meat-lovers, even the most devoted vegetarian will be amazed by the variety of food available at his / her disposal in Cusco. Chicharon, or fried pork, usually served with potato and a corm of enormous size, is a must-have for the locals on their Sunday lunch menu. Papas and choclo (potatoes and corn), are loved in the Cusco valley and are cooked in multiple varieties. A good meal is always accompanied by a glass of chicha morada, or a bottle of Inca Cola. What adds special flavor to the local food, is the fact that everything is hand harvested in the mountains, and is rarely grown with the use of chemicals.
6.The Art: La Escuela Cusqueña
If you, like me, believe that you have seen enough of the religious art travelling throughout the Europe and nothing else can impress your exhausted imagination, then don’t jump to conclusions until you get to know the art of Cusco region. Known as la Escuela Cusceña, a group of artist who worked incognito has managed to create a vast number of real masterpieces. When Spanish colonists arrived to Cusco, they didn’t have many tools of converting the local illiterate Inca population into Catholicism. Mainly, at their disposition they had only the language of art. Under the threat of painful execution, the local masters were forced to recreate the powerful religious images and teach their people about new religion. And they did… but not in their hearts or their heads. Following the pattern ordered to them, they managed to include images of Incan prime Gods, Pachacámac and Pachamama. You will not find a colonial painting created by the impressive genius of the local masters that doesn’t contain one of the crucial to Inca religion symbols, wither it is the sun, the moon, the snake, or the corn. Thus, for instance, in the reproduction of the “Last Supper” by the Cuscenean artists, you can observe a cui, or guinea pig, the major local delicacy, is being served, and the Judah has a stunning resemblance to Francisco Pizarro, the first conquistador. Every painting is an astonishing fusion of Inca centuries-long veneration of the Mother Earth and the new to them Catholic religion.
If Cusco is the navel of the world, then its own center, Plaza de Armas, is the real beginning of all beginnings, the sacred place that the Incas designated as the heart of their vast empire and the worshiping place to their most sacred god Inti, or the Sun God.
It also serves as a constant reminder of its colonial past. The modern version of this sacred place is an amalgam of Inca sturdy walls and architectural genius of the colonists, who also granted the place its name. Three most important churches of today’s Cusco are concentrated here. It’s full of stores and cozy cafes. You can observe the surrounding mountains teeming with brown-rooted houses, gradually creeping higher and higher up the valley. Come here in the evening, and you will encounter a totally transformed place, full of lights and life. The Plaza is the meeting points for both, tourists of all imaginable nationalities, as well as locals, who use the sacred space to relax as well as do business.